Review by Don L. Stradley
For many Elvis Presley fans, King Creole is proof that he could've been a real actor. They have a point. This was, after all, the one Presley film that offered more than just another rockin' good time.
The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, a Hollywood legend who had directed Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca in the same year. He was working from a strong script by Herbert Baker, a veteran of various Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield movies, and Michael Gazzo, who'd enjoyed a recent success on Broadway with his play, A Hatful of Rain. Baker and Gazzo were working from a novel by Harold Robbins, 'A Stone for Danny Fisher.' They jimmied the plot, changing Danny from a boxer trying to fight his way out of poverty to a singer trying to sing his way out.
King Creole had originally been created as a non-singing vehicle for James Dean. It was put on a shelf after Dean's death, and dusted off for Presley, who by 1958 had three films to his credit and seemed to be improving with each role. Unlike Dean, Presley could leap into violence with shocking speed; few actors have ever been such coiled springs, or threw themselves into fight scenes with such abandon. Who threw a better movie punch then Elvis? John Wayne, maybe. Elvis threw his right hook like he wanted to kill, bringing it up from the floor. He may have been a mama's boy from Tupelo, but there was some devil in him. It would all come out in King Creole.
He plays a busboy at a Bourbon Street dive in New Orleans. He's flunked out of high school, and has no hope for the future. As would happen in many Elvis movies, someone hears him sing and offers him a job. But there are complications. Some local hoodlums have already enlisted him in a robbery. There's also a mysterious babe named Ronnie (Carolyn Jones). One day at work, Elvis notices her getting smacked around by a local slob. After Elvis does a number, he leaps to Ronnie's rescue. As Ronnie's attacker moves in, Elvis breaks a bottle and holds it up, ready to cut and slash. "Now," he says, "you'll see what I do for an encore."
Ronnie "belongs" to Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau), a Bourbon Street power player. Fields wants Elvis to sing in his club. Meanwhile, Elvis wants to sing for another club-owner. Matthau doesn't like to lose, so he sends Ronnie to seduce Elvis. Elvis and Ronnie have some chemistry, but Elvis also has feelings for a nice girl at a drugstore he helped rob. Plus the local hoods are pressuring him to work for Maxie.
Then there's a subplot about Elvis' dad (Dean Jagger), who works in a pharmacy. Elvis doesn't want to end up like him, pushing a broom for pennies. The old man wants Elvis to quit singing and go back to high school. Elvis feels like the whole world is closing in on him. It's no wonder he keeps losing his temper and lashing out.
Presley was surrounded by a top cast of veterans and strong newcomers. Along with Matthau, Jones, and Jagger, Dolores Hart is back in her second Elvis movie as the good girl who comes all undone by Elvis' charms. Vic Morrow, only a few years removed from his role in Blackboard Jungle, is perfectly venal as "Shark," the scaliest of the local hoods. But Carolyn Jones is the show stealer. Her early scenes in the film, where she's drunk and wants to follow Elvis to school, are a perfect mix of humor and pathos. Her last scene, when she dies from a bullet meant for Elvis, is right out of the darkest film noir.
Where does King Creole rate in the Presley canon? Well, one could argue that the two he made prior - Loving You, and Jailhouse Rock - were superior films. They had better songs, and the Presley phenomenon was still so new that the movies crackle with excitement. But even if those movies are better than King Creole, I'll suggest that Elvis is a better actor in King Creole. He's a whirlwind here, one minute he's on the balcony of his home, throwing kisses to prostitutes, the next he's arguing with his family, then he's battling the bar bums to protect Ronnie, then he's at school arguing with the principal. In his earlier movies Elvis was a bit pouty and stiff, but in King Creole he's more comfortable, more fluid. He's more mature here, even though he's actually playing a younger character.
The reviewers of the day weren't sure what to make of this jumble of noir, New Orleans nightlife, and teen thuggery. Even the music felt different, more Dixieland than rockabilly. Noted The Spectator:
"As the most extreme example of a contemporary idol, Mr. Presley is pretty fascinating, and, though you may be put off at first by his pale, puffy, bruised looking babyish face, by the weary cherubic decadence you might imagine in Nero, and the excessive greasiness of his excessively long, spiky locks, his films, however bad (and King Creole is pretty low on his list), are well worth taking a look at."
Other reviewers derided the film's violence, but most agreed that Elvis was improving. Variety praised his work, describing him as "a better than fair actor."
As for Elvis, he was playing it cool, man. Movies were just an extension of everything else he did. "You get on the radio, and then you go on television," he said. "Then someone wants to put you in movies. It's a natural progression."
But according to those who knew him, his blase attitude disguised the truth: he wanted to be taken seriously as an actor.
"Elvis copied certain traits from several actors," said his cousin Billy Smith in Alanna Nash's excellent book, 'Elvis Aron Presley, Revelations from the Memphis Mafia.' "He liked Dean's rebel attitude and his intensity. And he liked that brooding of Marlon Brando's, and the way Rudolph Valentino projected a lot out of his eyes. Elvis tried to do the same thing."
But just as Elvis seemed to be hitting his stride, two events altered the course of his his career.
First, the songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller cut their connection to him. They'd written many of his best songs, but admitted years later that they'd grown bored of the Presley formula. The King Creole soundtrack would be the last time an Elvis movie would feature songs by Leiber and Stoller.
Elvis' career grew even more complicated when the US Army served him with a draft notice one month before filming was to begin on King Creole. He received a 60-day deferment, but the thought of army life must have been hanging over him as he filmed his scenes.
When asked to name his favorite film, Presley often mentioned King Creole. Although many of his fans prefer the more lighthearted romps like Viva Las Vegas and Blue Hawaii, it's interesting that Presley chose the meanest, darkest film of his career, one with an unhappy ending. It could be because he simply worked the hardest on this one, or that he did it with an impending army hitch on his mind and still delivered a solid performance. It also marked the last phase of his first era, the pre-'60s Elvis. He would continue to act in movies, but once he was back in civilian life Paramount changed the tone of his films. He would become family entertainment, or as Smith said bluntly, "They kept putting him in crap."
Elvis' screen character would change, too. He would never again be such a rebellious loner. Instead, his character became lighter. Paramount would also surround him with "buddies," starting with GI Blues.
The women in his movies would also change. There certainly wouldn't be anymore dark, hellbent babes like Carolyn Jones. From 1960 onward, Elvis would play opposite an interchangeable cast of women, some better than others, but none as offbeat or unpredictable as Jones. She was the only actress in his movies who seemed otherworldly enough to meet him one on one. She's one of the reasons King Creole stands out.
Fight scenes would continue to play a big part in his movies, but he'd never approach them with the wildness he showed in King Creole. Just look at the scene in a trash-filled New Orleans alley where he slams Vic Morrow against a brick wall and says, "I should bash your brains in." Can you imagine Justin Bieber, or Justin Timberlake, saying such a line and sounding convincing? For that matter, can you imagine Elvis saying it at any other point in his movie career? Probably not. This was the last time he would play such a bad ass.
According to various biographers, Elvis felt King Creole would probably be his last film. He didn't know if he'd still be popular once he got out of the army. "This could be it," he said constantly during filming.
Maybe that's why he let the devil out in King Creole, and threw punches like he was trying to break every last jaw in Hollywood.